Where fake news came from — and why some readers believe it

Social media makes news accessible to its users, but also exposes them to false information.


Despite all the hoopla about “fake news” — President Obama has denounced it and Facebook has pledged to rein in websites that spread it — the phenomenon is not new.

In the U.S., what today might be considered propaganda or fake news was commonly accepted practice in the late 18th and 19th centuries, said Andie Tucher, a historian and journalism professor at Columbia University.

“Newspapers were very political in the early years of the republic,” Tucher said. “There was no understanding and no expectation that news should be impartial. News was the thing that expressed opinion.”


As technology and the means of dissemination evolved, so, too, did fake news.

With the arrival in the 1830s of the penny press, which made news accessible to the lower and middle classes for the first time, sensational news and gossip proliferated. In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series about the discovery of life on the moon. “It sold like hot cakes,” said Tucher.

At the time, many newspapers also published short stories and poetry, so readers didn’t necessarily expect everything they read to be true. For readers of the moon series, part of the appeal was figuring out whether it was true. Though the author of the Great Moon Hoax never confessed to the deception, Tucher said, the series was carefully crafted to give hints that it was all a joke.

As the field of journalism became professionalized in the late 1800s and early 1900s, respectable newspapers refused to publish deliberately false reports, even tongue-in-cheek ones.

Satire never went away, of course, but was practiced by entertainers rather than journalists. In the modern era, satire has remained popular, as the Onion and “The Daily Show” can attest, but most media consumers know the difference between that and fake news, said Sharon Kaye, a philosophy professor at John Carroll University who edited the book “The Onion and Philosophy.”

“They’re reading it knowing that it’s meant to be fake, and they’re reading it to laugh,” said Kaye. Headlines like “Christ returns to NBA” and “Black man given nation’s worst job” were clearly in jest.

But if this year is any guide, some people have trouble telling fact from fiction.

Although gossip and hoaxes have proliferated in supermarket tabloids, on email chains and online for years, the current brand of fake news and its popularity is a product of new technology colliding with a widespread mistrust of big institutions, Tucher said.


“People have not yet sorted out in their minds how they’re going to incorporate [social media] into their news stream,” she said. They may be inclined to believe a false report originating on social media because it feels “more magical, more interesting or even more authoritative because it seems more unmediated,” said Tucher.

Another reason readers believe false stories is they want to.

If a lie is telling you something you want to hear, you’re more likely to think it’s true.

— Sharon Kaye, philosophy professor

“If a lie is telling you something you want to hear, you’re more likely to think it’s true,” Kaye said.

The lies can be difficult to debunk because they involve proving that something didn’t happen.

“You can’t prove a negative,” Kaye said, “but you can argue that the burden of proof lies on the other side… if they’re making a claim against common sense or against more plentiful evidence.”

Kaye also noted that arguing that a fact is true just because it hasn’t been proved false constitutes poor logic.

Mainstream newspapers and fact-checking websites like,, and PolitiFact have been busy dedicating themselves to this task over the last year. In case you missed them, here are a few of the most popular stories that have been debunked:

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, surrenders to police in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 4 after going into a restaurant with an assault-style rifle to "self-investigate" a conspiracy about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place.
Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, surrenders to police in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 4 after going into a restaurant with an assault-style rifle to “self-investigate” a conspiracy about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place.
(Sathi Soma / Associated Press )


A false story alleged that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were involved in a child sex ring based out of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza store owned by James Alefantis in Washington, D.C.

The conspiracy theory originated on the online forum 4chan, according to PolitiFact, and quickly propagated on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook. None of it was true, the New York Times noted in an article in November.

That was not enough to stop a North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, from walking into the pizza store on Dec. 4 with an assault-style rifle to investigate the claim himself. Nor was it enough to stop the son of Trump’s national security pick, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, from repeating it. The younger Flynn was fired from Trump’s transition team.

Trump and the pope

In July 2016, the website WTOE 5 News reported that “news outlets around the world” were reporting that Pope Francis had taken the unprecedented step of endorsing Trump for president. Despite the website’s own description of its articles as “satire or pure fantasy,” the misinformation stuck. In a news conference on Oct. 2, Francis reiterated that he would not endorse any candidate.

In 2015, another fake news site reported that the pope had endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.


Hillary Clinton and the FBI

A headline that read “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide” circulated widely on Facebook in November. The story was published online on the “Denver Guardian,” a fake news website purporting to be the online arm of a legitimate city newspaper.

NPR tracked down the owner of the site, Jestin Coler, who admitted that “everything” about the story was fictional but it “spread like wildfire” on pro-Trump forums, likely because it fit into existing right-wing conspiracy theories.

Voting fraud

An article circulating on the conspiracy site and other websites falsely argued that Trump actually won the popular vote when voting by immigrants in the country illegally was discounted. (Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by more than 2.7 million votes.) The story was based on a pair of tweets by Gregg Phillips, who said he had “verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens,” though he offered no evidence of having done so or of how one even could do so five days after the national election.

The theory promoted by the story was echoed in a tweet by president-elect Trump, who said he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Clinton backs Islamic State

A story that claimed Clinton sold weapons to Islamic State was among the five top-performing fake election stories on Facebook in the months leading up to the election, according to a Buzzfeed analysis that looked at shares, comments and reactions.

The headline of the story, “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS...then drops another bombshell!,” cited hacked emails as proof. Actually, WikiLeaks didn’t confirm that.


For most of the presidential campaign, the Buzzfeed analysis found, election content from legitimate news outlets “easily outpaced” that of content from fake news sites.

But as the election drew nearer, interest in the fake content skyrocketed. In the three months leading up to the election, the 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs received 8,711,000 “engagements” on Facebook — shares, reactions and comments.

By contrast, the 20 top-performing election stories from 19 major news outlets — including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News and NBC — received 7,367,000 engagements.

Clinton endorses Trump

Various websites, including the, which publishes a mix of real and fake news, quoted Clinton as saying, “I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; they’re honest and can’t be bought” in a 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs. The story also was among the top-performing fake stories on Facebook, according to the Buzzfeed analysis.

Excerpts of the speech released by WikiLeaks show that Clinton said, “I would like to see more successful business people run for office,” and “You can be maybe rented but never bought,” but she never mentioned anybody by name.

Pence insults first lady

Of the top 20 fake news stories that trended on Facebook ahead of the election, only three could arguably be considered to be against Trump’s interests.


One said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called First Lady Michelle Obama “the most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had.” He did not. Pence only said that he didn’t “understand the basis” of Obama’s assertion that Trump’s lewd remarks in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” video constituted a description of sexually predatory behavior.


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